Ever since the modern, MTV-driven side of the record industry emerged in the 1980s, the last years of each decade have been defined by a pop resurgence, a genuine movement amongst suburban young people to popularize a large number of similar-sounding bands and artists that cater almost exclusively to them. Usually the music is aggressively teenage: overwrought, dramatic and lyrically simplified. In the past, the best name for this sound was “mall pop,” as many of its hallmark bands – Tiffany, New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls – made and enhanced their fame by performing and holding “meet & greets” in shopping malls. Oh and most of them were awful.
As we approach the end of our own decade, what’s strange is that our version of pop revivalism seems to be taking on a decidedly different form. In the late 1990s there was a notable pop-punk undercurrent to the mainstream pop of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC – with Blink 182 obviously as the most notable band. And while it might be too early to declare it the clear predecessor, it looks as if we’re seeing pop-punk bands of a new stripe completely replacing producer-driven pop acts as THE definitive pop movement amongst young people.
What else is there that qualifies? It’s certainly not hip hop – there’s been several articles arguing that hip hop is actually in a state of decline, or at the very least is stalled. Plus, hip hop and R&B tend to maintain a similar level of popularity and cultural ubiquity regardless of what’s going on in rock or pop music. American Idol towers over the contemporary music landscape, but its four biggest successes (Clarkson, Underwood, Aiken and Daughtry) make music in four completely different genres. The success of indie bands like The Shins, Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire is astonishing, but their audience is predominantly 20-somethings and their albums tend to have little staying power on the charts. No, the closest thing we have to a youth-driven pop music movement is bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and their ilk.
Rockist types are excited that for the first time in recent memory, guitar-driven music is competing at the top of the charts (well… guitar-driven music not of the Nickelback variety). Hell, somehow it even became cool to admit to liking Fall Out Boy this year, something I never thought would happen. But in their rush to acknowledge and champion the rise of emo-punk (or whatever you want to call it), few seem willing to admit or point out that the movement fits the exact same pattern of mall-pop past.
How so? Let’s compare a few of the genre’s biggest, most popular bands today to their mall-pop forerunners:
My Chemical Romance = Backstreet Boys
Points for first place: both of these bands were the first major breakout success in their respective genre (despite in no way being innovators), tearing down the walls and allowing for imitators and soundalikes to follow them to mainstream success. They also share the distinction of being a little bit older than their peers, and with that age comes a much greater sense of gravitas and seriousness. Although the BSB had their share of upbeat songs, their bread and butter were their heart-wrenching ballads like “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” and “I Want it That Way.” And while MCR aren’t likely to produce similar drivel, their music is still every bit as heart-wrenching and overdramatic; it just so happens that there’s some distorted guitars going on at the same time. Is there really that much of a difference between “Incomplete” and “Famous Last Words”?
Fall Out Boy = N’SYNC
I remember watching an awards show a couple of years ago and seeing this Simpsons-character-named band that I had never heard of beat My Chemical Romance in a fan-voted category. I figured that the emo-punk movement had found its first imitator. But just like with NSYNC before them, something interesting happened: the imitator became way, way more fun to listen to than their predecessor. While NSYNC still had their occasional shitty ballad, after No Strings Attached and “Bye Bye Bye” they decided to focus mostly on killer, beat-driven pop music. NSYNC weren’t weighed down by any pretense of self-importance or grandeur; they just wanted to make great pop music and leave it at that. Fall Out Boy are the exact same way – the emphasis is always on the solid hook and the killer, upbeat chorus, plus they have a good sense of humour about what they’re doing. In other words, you aren’t going to see a Black Parade out of them anytime soon.
Panic! At the Disco, Gym Class Heroes, etc. = 98 degrees, O-Town, etc.
The thing about the mall pop movements is that, at the time, they have room for all sorts of successes beyond just the Big Two or Three. However, as the staying power of the movement as a whole becomes questioned (ie. as the kids grow up) it’s these lesser-rans who fall off the cultural radar much quicker. So while bands like Panic! At the Disco and Gym Class Heroes may be storming up the charts and dominating YouTube video play counts now, one highly doubts they’ll be remembered as anything more than a footnote in ten years’ time.
Now, you may think that I’ve done this comparison to disparage emo-punk bands, and I wouldn’t blame you for presuming as such. But you’d be wrong. I doubt I’ll ever become a full-blown MCR or FOB fan, but I have no problem admitting to a number of solid singles both bands have produced, just as I have no problem admitting that NSYNC’s best tracks still hold up today (but I wouldn’t have been caught dead saying that a decade ago).
If anything, fact that bands like these new young upstarts are playing a key role in teenagers’ lives the way that studio-created pop acts used to is a massive improvement. With the internet taking over from MTV and radio as the primary means of music discovery, today’s more discerning kids are looking for something with a little more grit to sink their teeth into and finally are able to find it on their own. The music they’ve chosen is still teenage and over-dramatic, but it’s artist-driven, not producer driven as their mall-pop precedessors. And while the record labels are certainly 100 per cent behind this genre of music NOW and pushing it like it’s nobody’s business (which perhaps explains why I’m able to compare it to mall-pop groups of old as I did above), its genesis was decidedly genuine and far more grass roots than perhaps any teen-pop movement beforehand.
Today’s teens seem to have chosen punk over pop, perhaps because instead of telling them what they wanted to hear, someone bothered to ask.
Edit: I totally realized another great point of comparsion between emo-punk and mall-pop: self-referential lyrics. This refers mainly to the Backstreet Boys and Fall Out Boy, both of whom have numerous songs about their relationship with their audience and fanbase (especially on FOB’s new album…and of course, FOB are a slightly more clever about it).